Howard Zinn's 'Rebel Voices': A Call for Civil Disobedience

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." --Mark Twain

What does civil disobedience sound like? It sounds like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas, Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie, parents who've lost their children in war and Gulf Coast residents betrayed by their country. It sounds like a history that many of us have forgotten ... until now.

Rebel Voices, opening this week at The Cultural Project in New York, provides a full course in the struggles that have shaped America from its inception to the present day. Through staged dramatic readings, the show unites the full humor and depth of iconic figures we celebrate but don't bother to read and individuals on the margins whose voices drove movements for change.

Rebel Voices is the dramatic counterpart to Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove's Voice of a People's History of the United States. The show, written by Rob Urbinati brings together American voices pulled from speeches, articles, memoirs and interviews to highlight a national tradition in short supply in recent years: civil disobedience.

Performed by a permanent cast of actors with Danny Glover, Eve Ensler, Lili Taylor and Staceyann Chin rotating in to bring additional star-power, the show blends the words of our most celebrated orators with the powerful voices of everyday women and men who fought against impossible odds to change their lives and their country.

The show presents these voices, moving chronologically across the expanse of American history. There are familiar echoes here like Sojourner Truth's famous "Ain't I A Woman" and Frederick Douglas' "What, to the American Slave, Is Your 4th of July?"

But the show reminds us that these great speeches weren't always Black History Month clichés. In fact, the words still burn; Douglas' elegant excoriation of white liberalism and Truth's pioneering understanding of the intersection between the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage are presented here to great effect. It is political language at its best, beautiful, alive and inspiring.

Rebel Voices also features an intriguing selection of other texts and characters that you'll be shocked you don't know. Of particular note are the U.S. Strategic Bombing Report's secrets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Anne Moody's firsthand account of a lunch-counter sit-in, and a trio of labor and housing activists from the 1930s whose radicalism will remind us how many of our grandmothers got to be so tough. While not every voice rings as clearly as it might have in its historical moment, many have aged well and offer both inspiration and insight into our present political predicament.

The production allows the unique opportunity to enjoy some of the greatest speeches ever delivered as if you were in the original audience. Through a simple but active staging, the actors succeed in walking you through the decades with a steady pace, alternating between fist-pounding rhetoric and the most private confessions. The show also features the rebel voices found in the songs of protest by Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Roy Ayers, performed by Allison Moorer.

While the dramatic edge of certain moments is dulled by their popular identification, like Malcolm X's "by any means necessary," the descriptions of important historical moments, past and present, by ordinary people are complex and compelling.

It is these quiet moments of Rebel Voices that truly deliver. The audience becomes a part of intimate conversation with parents whose son was lost at war or a woman convinced her inability to leave pre-Katrina New Orleans was anything but a mistake. It is the power of language to change our minds and reshape our ideas that we are reminded of in these exchanges -- the simple but civilly disobedient act of telling the unofficial truth as we've lived it despite the consequences.

Rebel Voices reminds us of the power of the spoken word, the possibility of language to illuminate injustice and the full arc of history that never makes it into a textbook. And in doing so connects the great words and thinkers of the past to bring history's rhyme into the present.

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